A new state parental leave law entitles male employees to take time off for the birth or adoption of a child, but it also signals something bigger: A growing recognition of the vital role fathers play.
The law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick on his last full day in office earlier this month, expands the state’s 1972 maternity leave act to also grant new fathers eight weeks of unpaid time off. New parents at companies with 50 or more employees fall under the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to both men and women; the state law applies to companies with as few as six employees.
If both parents work for the same company, they are entitled to eight weeks off between them.
Expanding paternity leave for fathers will help make families stronger, advocates say, noting that the more both parents are involved in the lives of their children, the more successful those children will be. Having time to care for and bond with a newborn can instill in men a “sense of fatherhood” that can lead to more equity at home and a better work-life balance with their spouse, according to a soon-to-be-released study by Northeastern University.
Not only that, fathers who are more involved in their children’s lives report greater job satisfaction and less work-life conflict, and are less likely to consider quitting their jobs, the Northeastern study found.
The new state paternity law, which started as a bill filed in 2013 by then-state representative Martin J. Walsh (now Boston’s mayor), could help reduce the bias against men taking time off to care for newborns, said Jamie Ladge, the Northeastern management and organizational development professor who coauthored the study. Recently, Ladge said, she overheard two fathers having a “real men don’t take paternity leave”-type conversation while picking up their children from an after-school program.
“Maybe if more people take advantage of it, then it won’t seem like such a stigma,” Ladge said.
More men taking paternity leave, and presumably dedicating themselves to child care down the road, the study noted, could also ease workplace discrimination against women, who are sometimes seen as less-valuable employees because of their propensity for taking child-care-related time off.
“For women to advance in the workplace, we’ve got to acknowledge and support the important roles that men play in the home,” said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family at Boston College.
In the United States, nearly a third of men in the United States have no access to paternity leave when they have a child, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers. And forget about paid leave. More than half of US employers provide some form of paid maternity leave beyond vacation or sick time, but only 14 percent offer paid paternity benefits, according to the New York-based Families and Work Institute. Only three states mandate paid parental leave: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Around the world, a study found at least 178 countries have paid maternity leave, and 70 offer paid paternity leave, Harrington said.
But the benefit has been gaining traction here. President Obama on Thursday directed federal agencies to give workers six weeks of paid sick leave, even before the time has been earned, to care for a new child, and encouraged Congress to give them six more. The administration also proposed a $2 billion effort to encourage states to implement paid family leave.
Several business groups in Massachusetts said many companies already have voluntary paternity leave policies, but for smaller ones that don’t, the new state law will be a burden, as even losing one worker can have a major effect on productivity. This cost adds to the competitive disadvantage for employers in a state that also requires them to pay their workers sick time, and will soon have the highest minimum wage in the country, said Bill Vernon, Massachusetts director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
But as workplace lawyers note, Massachusetts companies are supposed to offer parental leave to all workers in order to be in compliance with employment discrimination laws.
“It would basically be sex discrimination to give female employees eight weeks of leave and to deny male employees that same benefit,” said Amy Carlin, a partner at Morgan, Brown & Joy in Boston. “The parental leave law has caught up to the advice that we’ve been giving our clients for years.”